Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day throwback: Traditional Appalachian dating customs

Today is Valentine’s Day, the annual celebration of all things love and romance. Most places in the world have their own traditions surrounding dating and courtship, and the Appalachian region is no exception.  

Because mountain travel was so difficult, Appalachian communities were extremely close knit, with few people venturing far from where they were born. 

“In general, couples married young and met close to home,” said Kathy Olson, director of the Stephenson Center for Appalachia. “This was a geographical circumstance as well as one that developed historically. Couples met at church or in school, and marriages were most often between members of the same community, not with ‘outsiders.’” 

The strong bonds between communities and the lack of outside influence meant that Appalachian sweethearts could get pretty creative when it came to love, dating, and marriage.  

“Love spoons” are a girl’s best friend  

Many early settlers had very few resources and even less money to go out and buy something for their sweethearts at the time, so they resorted to handmaking gifts for their significant others. A popular way that a man would show his interest and intent towards a lady would be to hand carve a wooden spoon for her—a “love spoon.” The man would spend many days engraving the spoon with intricate designs like Celtic knots and hearts to signify he was committed to the relationship and prove that he could provide for a woman with his craftsmanship. If the woman wanted to show that she reciprocated the man's feelings, she made him a quilt in return for his beautifully crafted “love spoon.” 

The cat’s out of the quilt 

For folks living in rural areas quilting was an artform, a way to create much-needed materials for the home, and a social activity. In Appalachia, it was also a way to predict marriage. When young women got together to take on the project of making a quilt, they often liked to play a game that would decide which one of them was the next to be married. The young ladies would place a cat in the middle of a quilt and each grab one of the corners. Before the cat could make a quick getaway, the women would begin bouncing the cat into the air. When the cat finally ran away, whichever woman he ran closest to would be the next to marry. This wasn’t a guarantee, though—before the woman could get married, she would need to find a partner to court publicly.  

Keep your hands where we can hear them 

When a young couple was courting, they would usually attend family gatherings together. The young men would walk their ladies home from church or bring gifts to her home, a practice known as “sparking.” Young couples always had to have a chaperone around to ensure that the ladies' chastity was protected at all times. If a couple ever wanted to get some alone time, they would participate in a very common Appalachian courting practice. The young couple would have to play a courting dulcimer, which is a string instrument with two fretboards that the couple could play together. Chaperones could wait in another room and know that the couple was being chaste as long as there was music being played. If the instrument could be heard playing it meant the young couple’s hands were already occupied and nothing inappropriate was taking place. 

With this quilt, I thee wed 

Courtship rarely lasted longer than a few months. When a couple was ready to get married, a common gift the bride gave to her new husband would be a quilt she made with her family and friends. The traditional marriage quilt had special meaning behind its design. The quilt would depict two intertwined rings, which signified wedding bands. Many families in the region couldn’t afford metal or gold wedding rings, but with a wedding-ring quilt, every night the couple would go to bed with their rings “on” and remember their promises to each other. 

These Appalachian traditions may not be necessary for modern couples, but if you’re looking for a new way to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, you can take some inspiration from the early settlers. Instead of a carved spoon or quilt, consider giving a handmade card or another gift that shows off your creativity. Couples back in the day also traded flowers, fresh berries, or a home-cooked meal, all of which would still be appreciated today. You can also plan a hike, a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, or a picnic and appreciate the same scenic beauty past Appalachians enjoyed—and unlike them, you won’t need a chaperone to spend some time with your favorite person!  

By Makena VosbergFebruary 14, 2022